“It seems much easier to make interesting, sandbox PvP content then it is to maintain and create PvE treadmill content”

November 30, 2010

Every now and then you come across something shocking it’s just too hard to ignore. Today is one of those days. This is a comment from a post Keen made, waiting for WoW to embrace its PvP nature (pro-tip: HKO is going full-loot before WoW embraces MMO PvP).

Bartlebe (15th comment):

The baffling thing about this, for me, is that it seems much easier to make interesting, sandbox PvP content then it is to maintain and create PvE treadmill content.
They could make interesting and wonderful open world PvP content fairly easily.

He goes on, but that part is the real gem.

First let’s consider the context here: we are talking about WoW, where the devs claim it’s technically impossible to get a 100v100 battle going without instancing it, hence the failure of Wintergrasp. Ignore the fact that, in WoW itself, you had bigger world battles in vanilla, but hey, they said it’s impossible, so it must be true. And pre-BG vanilla is also the last time WoW had anything remotely resembling world PvP, and it was Blizzard who worked diligently to crush it, so again, look forward to those HKO changes first.

But let’s move beyond WoW and look at the MMO genre as a whole: how many working sandbox PvP games have we had, compared to how many PvE treadmill games we have seen continue on year after year, despite being average at best? Or to put it another way: which would be easier to re-create and get right, EVE or WoW?

We have seen WoW recreated dozens of times, with various results (from LotRO to Alganon), but the formula itself is about as Mickey Mouse as playing WoW itself, and the make/break really comes down to polish, timing, and your IP.

The list of issues in recreating EVE is about as long as the wait for a pony reskin.

Hell, even EVE itself took years to really get itself into shape and become the massive success it is today, not to mention the ambitious plans CCP has for it’s future to further refine and get the game ‘right’. WoW ambitious future? A few zone revamps, and two more player model reskins. Ground-breaking stuff, really.

The simple fact is that PvE content, especially instanced, super easy PvE content, is easy to create in terms of getting it right. Yes, you need good artists to make it look good, and you need a QA army to polish it, but given how controlled everything is, balance and predicting what the players might do is kids stuff. Plus, if you screw it up (Rag 1.0, Nef 1.0, AQ40 1.0), just say it was tuned to be difficult and scale it down. Oh actually, call that a ‘feature’ going forward!

The obvious advantage a PvE themepark has is that everything is separated into its own little instance (be it an actual instance or level-set zones), and that instance is so tightly controlled that, well, your players get on the rail, get pulled along by the nose, and eventually depart after receiving their complimentary gift. So long as you don’t leave a gaping hold in the rail, the content ‘works’. The biggest enemy to your game, the players, can’t do more than dance on a mailbox to harm you, as you have ensured they keep their hands inside the ride at all times, and you shuffle them on/off at exactly the right time.

Those safety nets don’t exist in a sandbox. The more ‘sandbox’ you make your game, the more freedom you give to the players. Most will use this for good, but it’s not those who make designing the game a challenge. The minority who seek to destroy everything are the ones who makes designing a sandbox so difficult, and the more ‘sandboxy’ your game, the more weapons you give them.

Without instances that change the rules, without spells only doing X in setting Y, without checking to make sure everything is nice and ‘fair’ before you start, the downward spiral can come quick in a sandbox, and once you get rolling it only feeds the griefers to continue abusing things harder. While blah themeparks can chug along for years (DDO), a poorly designed sandbox soon eats itself whole (SB).

It’s also very telling that the ‘easy’ way out of a problem is to add themepark-like controls (WG becoming an instance), while only a few will stick to the original goal and put in the work to make it right (CCP with fleet warfare). It’s telling that games like WAR, which tried to play the middle, ultimately fail on the sandbox elements and ‘cheap out’ by going themepark. Knowing what we know about Mythic, if going sandbox really was the easy path, WAR would have been on it after the 3rd month.

Ultimately the trap some players fall into is they look at the complexity of a single piece of sandbox content from the outside, compare it to the complexity of a themepark piece, and come to a conclusion. The reason this fails is that in a sandbox, you CAN’T just look at any one item and focus on that without analyzing the impact to the rest of the game. You can’t tweak a malfunctioning PvE ability without looking at its PvP impact. You can’t change up crafting on a whim without considering what it will do to the economy, which ultimately controls both PvE and PvP motivations. The entire world is one giant complex puzzle, rather than a long string of one-off content chunks, all of which can and do often get a massive ‘reset’ to fix whatever balance or design issues that may arise.

When’s the last time EVE had a themepark-like reset button pressed?


The more things change…

August 13, 2010

Which list is longer: The differences between LotRO, WAR, and Aion, or the similarities between UO, EQ1, and AC1?

It’s a rhetorical question of course, but highlights a point I was getting at yesterday, and relates to a post over at Don’t Fear the Mutant that I commented on. How is it that the first ‘real’ MMOs were all so distinct, so varied, and still ‘worked’, while the last wave of ‘big’ MMOs are so similar you can easy highlight their ‘unique’ points with a short list that is likely to be more marketing hype than actual substance?

WoW is of course the root of this evil, yet ultimately it comes down to the current player base and how they voice what they want. For every player done with the solo-quest faceroll shiny chase, there are ten others happily handing over $45 to get more of the same, or waiting in line to spend $25 to re-skin their in-game pony. Not that this is anything new to gaming mind you; EA has been happily collecting $50-$60 from millions of people each year to update NFL rosters, while Capcom will give you a sweet deal on four more characters for a re-release of Street Fighter, but it disappointing that it’s now happening to the MMO genre.

Somehow I don’t remember many people thinking these games were going to be copies of each other back in the late 90s / early 2000, with Madden-like ‘selling points’ attached to this years version of WoW.

Chuck-o-the-day: Every night before going to sleep, the Boogey Man checks under his bed for Chuck Norris.


Is the MMO genre back to being a niche market?

August 12, 2010

Anyone else seeing the irony of SOE making their next EQ game a WoW clone? My my how quickly things change, and am I the only one thinking SOE is going to find a new and creative way to screw this one up as well?

But warm SOE thoughts aside, the EQ franchise going in a straight-up WoW-clone direction does bring up an interesting point; can you make a ‘mass market’ MMO in the post-WoW age without just trying to remake WoW? Or rather, WILL anyone try to make a ‘mass market’ MMO that’s not “here is how we plan to recreate WoW” in 2010, 2011, or 2012?

One would think that with so many titles having already tried that strategy in vain, someone at a big company would take a quick look around and say “hey, let’s not try to re-create what happened with WAR/Aion/LotRO/insert-failed-WoW-clone-here”. That perhaps they would look at the successful smaller titles that have been around for years and instead say “hey, if we throw X millions of dollars at this idea, I think we can expand the concept beyond the 10s or low 100 thousands of users”.

Now I’m not saying that if you throw 100 million dollars to make a AAA version of something like A Tale in the Desert or Darkfall it’s going to result in 1 million+ subscribers. Actually I’m fairly sure it won’t, but then again I’m also fairly sure cloning WoW using $100m and a famous IP gets you WAR, so…

This brings up two related questions: is ANY game capable of WoW-level success, and if so, is the WoW approach (easy, overly accessible, MMORPG-lite) the only way to go? My answer to the first question is no, as I’ve always believed that WoW is an outlier in the genre, a product that came along at just the right time and, due to a social snowball effect rather than any design decision, reached the heights that it reached. But assuming a title could reach WoW-levels of success, it’s interesting to think about the second question.

On the one hand, WoW has shown (reasons aside) that it IS possible for an MMO to attract 10m+ users. On the other hand we have the countless examples of why trying to re-create WoW is a good way to blow a ton of cash, and we also have a title like EVE, which is completely different in almost every way from WoW and yet is arguably the second most successful MMO ever (at least in the US/EU), considering it’s still growing after 6+ years and shows no signs of slowing down.

So if I’m an exec looking at the MMO market, I see two very different things. I see a huge game whose community loves an easy, accessibly, low graphics, solo-based MMO. I then look at the other big success story and I see a game that over the years has slowly built up its user base without sacrificing the original design core but has massively upgraded its graphics and the requirements to run them. A complex and at times arcane game as famous for its terrible lows as it is for its amazing highs (and one that many see as a giant spreadsheet-based bore), and one that has had more ‘famous’ controversies than perhaps all other games combined.

Is there a middle ground? Is there a way to make a broader-reaching EVE, or a WoW-like game that lives up to expectations? And perhaps most importantly, is that what TODAY’S gamer wants? Back in 2005-06 everyone and their mother wanted what WoW was selling, just like back in 2000 everyone wanted what EQ1 was selling. What if that something is not more WoW today, like it was not more EQ in 2004? Is the demand for something today more MMORPG-like, or something even LESS MMORPG-like than even WoW? And if it’s the latter, has the MMO genre’s time come and gone like beat-em-up games, fighting games, and recently music games? Have we come full circle and are back to being a niche genre again, like the ‘good old days’?

Chuck-o-the-day: All of the actions performed by a Chuck Norris action figure are hate crimes.


It’s been three years already?

August 2, 2010

And this blog turns 3!

Actually it turned 3 years old a few weeks ago, but that whole getting married thing prevented a timely update, so this one is a little late. 3 years is a rather crazy length of time when I think about it. It’s more time than I’ve played any one MMO, it’s longer than all but one of my RL relationships, and it will shortly be longer than any one job I’ve ever held. I think that says more about me actually than anything else, but regardless, 3 years is a long time in SynCaine land. Anyway, on to the numbers, in similar fashion to last years update.

Blog Stats as of 8/2/2010

Total views: 692,972

Busiest day: 11,852 — Thursday, September 6, 2007

Posts: 843

Comments: 11,790

Blog Stats 2009

Total views: 335,842

Busiest day: 11,852 — Thursday, September 6, 2007

Posts: 523

Comments: 5,393

Blog Stats 2008

Total views: 104,123

Busiest day: 11,852 – Thursday, September 6, 2007

Posts: 253

Comments: 1,658

What the numbers mean: While the rate of growth has slowed, things are still chugging along here, and considering the blog has been heavily niche-title (Darkfall) focused for a good year now, that’s not too shabby, although I’ve still yet to conquer that BBC-linked post for one-day traffic. Some day BBC, some day. Comments, the best part about blogging, have continued to come in at a very healthy rate. Thanks to everyone who has dropped a line here, and especially to those who comment frequently, you help keep me motivated to write and rant. The next few months should be fun, as both the 1 million views and 1000 posts milestones will be reached.

Top Posts for all days ending 2010-08-02

The love and hate game, WoW style. – 17,626

iPhone MMO, Field Runners, and a slow Friday – 10,564

EQ2, trial of the neverending download. – 9,796

Aion end-game, way ahead of WoW and WAR. – 7,701

Blizzard’s new focus for WoW, just as soon as Mythic finished it- 7,488

Level 4 missions in EVE, and my silly Rohk – 7,130

Warhammer’s major problem, the players. – 5,694

Dragon Age review – 5,378

DarkFall: 3 month review – 4,624

Screen shot comparison. – 4,260

Top Posts for all days ending 2009-06-22

The love and hate game, WoW style. -17,285

iPhone MMO, Field Runners, and a slow Friday – 9,437

Blizzard’s new focus for WoW, just as soon as Mythic finishes it – 7,259

EQ2, trial of the neverending download. – 5,982

Warhammer’s major problem, the players. – 4,767

Screen shot comparison. – 3,848

Level 4 missions in EVE, and my silly Rohk – 3,314

Burned out on WotLK already. – 2,902

Looking in the mirror; the sickness that was WoW raiding – 2,773

Help coming for low population servers in Warhammer Online – 2,526

The top two spots remain unchanged, with the BBC-linked post still holding a very comfortable edge over everything else, with no real contender in sight now that the Field Runners post has slowed its Google-fueled charge. The number three post is rather humorous, because after all these years, people are STILL searching for answers on when their damn download will actually finish. I don’t doubt EQ2 going SOE-flavor F2P might drive a little more traffic over as well.

The forth post shows just how much hype Aion had generated pre-release, along with just how many people are Blizzard trained to think end-game first, everything else last. Down to number five is one of my favorite posts, and as you can see from last year the post itself is not a favorite when it comes to random Google traffic. The post about running missions in EVE, at number 6, shows the steady interest EVE generates, and how year to year, new pilots are still trying to tackle the same challenges as pilots before them. That speaks highly to the design of EVE; that instead of having to reinvent itself every expansion, the game simply continues to add layers, and those early layers are just as important today as they were in the past.

At number 7 is another WAR-related post. Like Aion after it, WAR went live with a lot of hype and hope from the MMO community, and like Aion, it’s sad/frustrating that it did not come close to living up to expectations. Spots 8 and 9 are review posts; people seem to like those, especially if you make them just days after (or even better, before) the game in question is released. Finally last years number 6 rounds out this year’s top 10.

Referrers for all days ending 2010-08-02

virginworlds.com/home.php- 21,138

news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/defaul… – 11,015

google.com/reader/view/ – 8,833

tobolds.blogspot.com/ – 4,704

killtenrats.com/ – 3,649

news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/defaul… – 3,159

wowinsider.com/ – 2,914

keenandgraev.com/ – 2,701

tagn.wordpress.com/ – 2,529

biobreak.wordpress.com/ – 2,388

Referrers for all days ending 2009-06-22

virginworlds.com/home.php – 11,315

news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/defaul… – 11,015

google.com/reader/view – 4,346

news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/defaul… – 3,159

wowinsider.com – 2,914

keenandgraev.com – 2,701

tobolds.blogspot.com – 2,598

killtenrats.com – 2,097

bdadv.blogspot.com – 1,386

massively.com – 1,338

Virgin Worlds, just narrowly edging out the BBC last year, reigns supreme a year later, almost doubling the number two spot. The rest of the list is largely unchanged from a year ago, with some minor shuffling and the addition of Biobreak, which pushes the main page of Massively out of the top ten (of course, a lot of Massively traffic comes from individualized pages, so their overall traffic is much higher than what the above list might suggest). Out of all MMO blogs, Tobold had the biggest increase; guess a little dramalama will do that eh? I think next year I’ll break these out to show just the previous year, as this will better reflect the year that was rather than show a total accumulation, and give a more accurate view on who recently sent people over.

Search Terms for all days ending 2010-08-02

hardcore casual – 6,772

syncaine – 3,466

darkfall review – 3,275

field runners – 3,149

dragon age review – 2,439

darkfall reviews – 1,097

aion endgame – 1,038

wotlk – 1,000

darkfall account – 913

wheel of time mmo – 773

Search Terms for all days ending 2009-06-22

field runners – 3,106

hardcore casual – 2,011

syncaine – 1,117

wotlk – 998

darkfall account – 762

warhammer online server population – 749

warhammer online collectors edition – 711

field runners for pc – 670

wheel of time mmo – 583

sandbox mmo – 536

I win! Fighting off Field Runners, the name of this blog and its author return to their rightful Google places as number 1 and number 2. Fitting that Darkfall comes in at number 3, just ahead of last year’s champion. As mentioned above, people love reviews, and Dragon Age made quite a splash when it released, so no surprise with number 5, followed by people looking for even more Darkfall reviews, with others looking for information about Aion’s endgame. Cute that wotlk shows up with exactly 1000 searches, ahead of getting a Darkfall account and the long suspected and hoped-for WoT MMO.

That’s it for the numbers; now let’s talk a little about what actually happened this past year here. I mentioned in my last yearly review that Darkfall was a pleasant surprise, and perhaps the surprise for this year is that I’m still at it a year later. Blood has all but officially gone inactive, and a re-return for Inq is not in the plans atm, but I fully intend to find a new clan to play with and continue on with Darkfall to feed the MMO need. With one expansion set to drop soon, and a massive update coming at the end of the year (or so), I see Darkfall keeping me entertained MMO-wise for some time. I’m sure the release of Civilization 5 is going to cut (deeply) into everything else come September however.

It’s funny that last year I was hoping for a third faction to be added to WAR, because a year later the hope is the same, if somewhat diminished due to how poorly the game has held up overall and with all the staff reductions over at Mythic/EA/Bioware/whatever. This plus the fact that WAR never did become that fun casual PvP game for me, and little attention has been paid to that game around here, which is a major change from a year ago.

“RMT is the future” update: This one is interesting, because the ‘traditional’ F2P model has still not produced a major MMO hit in the US/EU, while at the same time it seems each week another subscription MMO is announcing some F2P-ish account options. My captain obvious prediction? Soon the ‘standard’ for MMO pricing will be a hybrid of the sub and F2P model, and more than one games future will be determined by just HOW they mix the two. As usual, I expect SOE to set the standard on how NOT to do things, someone else to set the baseline for how to do it well (Turbine?) and Blizzard to come in later and ‘polish’ that idea to set a new industry standard, for better or worse. That said, I expect F2P will be very popular (and profitable) if executed in a manner similar to how Riot is doing things with League of Legends. When the model is win/win for the players AND for the company, you know things are good.

So that’s 3 years, damn. Hopefully everyone has enjoyed it (or enjoyed hating it) as much as I have, and fear not, things will continue. Be it a new Friday Blog war, another ‘out of the blue’ MMO surprise, or a second year of ganking in Darkfall, I’ll be writing about it, and hopefully you will be here reading and commenting. Happy gaming everyone, and thanks again for dropping by!


Guild Wars fail

June 9, 2010

The quest to find an MMO to play with Aria has hit another snag. In short, here is how Aria views Guild Wars “go kill plants, kill more plants, then more plants. We do the same thing every time”. Granted I don’t view it quite like that, but I can see her point.

The NightFall campaign, while better than Prophesies, still has some pacing and direction issues, and overall the PvE of Guild Wars is not what I expected. I think going in I was expecting something a little closer to Dungeons and Dragons Online in terms of instance use and pacing structure. Not AS heavily instanced and on-off as DDO, but more along the lines of the very first NightFall mission rather than all of the explorable areas that follow. I must say the PvE that we have experienced so far feels very much like a poor-mans co-op fantasy action game, but with tab-target 1-2-3 MMO mashing combat rather than some decent action game combat. My plan is to stick with GW a bit longer (at least to the cap) and see how it plays out, as I don’t mind the repetition as much as Aria does, and I think I’m a bit more into the skill combo stuff than she is.

But this means we are back to square one in terms of finding something to play. So far we have failed with DDO, EQ2, Allods, and now GW. Games we have already played a considerable amount of time and enjoyed include LotRO, WoW, and WAR.

Aria is pushing for a return to WAR, but my main concern is that what we found entertaining in our first pass through the game (a heavy mix of PvE (PQs being the highlights)) and some PvP, more so once we got into T4) might not be available should we reroll now. I’m sure tier 1 would be great, but am I wrong in assuming that both T2 and T3 would be empty-ish, and we would have considerable difficulty finding others to complete PQs with or to find some random RvR? I am curious to see how WAR has improved since we last played (just after LotD arrived), but that curiosity is tempered by the fact that no major addition has really found its way into the game. The new city siege mechanics do sound like fun though, and while we never had heavy performance issues before, that area being improved can’t hurt either.

The other option might be Aion, although that heavily depends on HOW the grind plays out. I’m not questioning that the game is a grind, but rather what you do while grinding. If it’s combat-heavy and not a direct repeat day-in-day-out, and some progress can be made in hourly chunks, that could work. If it is just doing the same exact uninteresting thing for hours before moving on to the next area to rinse and repeat, that would obviously be bad. I’m leaning heavily towards the latter based on what I know of Aion atm.

WAR is currently ahead if for no other reason then the fact that we already own it, so the initial cost to try it again would be lower (Aion still sells for $40). Reader thoughts?

Chuck-o-the-day: Leading hand sanitizers claim they kill 99.9% of all germs. Chuck Norris can kill 100% of whatever the fuck he wants.


PvP Systems: FFA vs Faction

March 26, 2010

Coppertopper previously asked my opinion on FFA PvP versus set faction PvP, and today seems like a good day to throw out my opinions on the topic and also see what everyone else thinks. Examples of FFA PvP include Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call – Darktide, Shadowbane, EVE Online, and DarkFall, among others. Examples of set faction PvP include Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft, Aion, and Warhammer Online, among others.

Let’s start with the strengths of each setup. In a set faction system, you are assigned to a side and hence immediately start the game with pre-defined enemies and friends. This means you can get right into the PvP action without having to solo or find a guild. WAR is the best example of this strength, as right at level one you can queue up for a scenario and play as part of a team. Balance is also generally easier to achieve in a set faction system since the developers know exactly which races/classes are going to be facing each other. Lore is easier to design as you have clearly defined enemies and allies, and the story can progress as the devs see fit.

A FFA PvP system on the other hand gives much of the control over to the players, from determining enemies and allies to how guilds choose to define themselves (mercs, RP, specific race/class/focus). Politics become a huge factor, as your enemies one day might be your allies the next, or vice versa. In games like EVE or DF territory control is important due to its relationship to valuable resources, and this opens up economic PvP. Finally the ‘bad apples’ can be placed on Kill on Sight (KoS) lists, giving the player community some additional control/tools.

I stated to Coppertopper that I prefer the FFA PvP setup, but really it comes down to how you design your game. For instance, I don’t think DAoC would have been a better game had it been FFA PvP from the ground up, while at the same time I think a game like WAR is hurt by its strict two-sided conflict. I also really enjoy the political aspect of a FFA system, but again this comes down to how involved you are with an MMO. I would say most casual players don’t keep up with politics, and so that entire side is a non-factor for them. If anything, a simplified “who do we fight” system is better/easier for them to jump in and get to some fighting. Fighting also tends to be more frequent in a set faction system, at least when comparing games like DF/EVE to DAoC/WAR, although the style of PvP is certainly not the only factor to consider when asking why.

MMO history has also shown the set faction games generally fare better than FFA PvP games in terms of popularity. I think a large part of that has to due with the more streamlined approach a set faction system allows, and also because a FFA system is more difficult to predict. A quick look at Shadowbane’s history will show that the FFA setup largely contributed to the games failure, as the winning side would be so dominant as to literally kill a server. On the other hand EVE and its one server has yet to see complete domination, despite the efforts of many, and while DF started with a few large alliances dominating, today on the NA server the world is split into many smaller alliances, each with its own political connections and history, and many ‘little guy’ clans are able to claim property and carve our a space for themselves.


Lum the Director

March 19, 2010

More embarrassing: How your in-game Aion character sounds, or the company behind the game producing this? That video actually encouraged me to buy Aion gold… sorry keno, or khino, or kihnananaan. Whatever…

I’d love to have been in the meeting where not only someone proposed making that video, but then someone else thought about it, and came to the conclusion that yes, this would be a good use of resources and will definitely, definitely slow keno sales. This being Friday, I’m going to say that it was Lum’s idea. Good job!

(Glad you are back to blogging though, and it only took Derek Smart talking again to do it!)


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